At IIDEX: Will the Office Go the Way of the Phonebooth and Mailbox?

teknion officeLloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

IIDEX is Canada's big annual contract furniture and design trade show, held in Toronto.

Teknion describes itself as "a leading international designer, manufacturer and marketer of mid- to high-end office systems and related furniture products." This is a business that is going through a period of rapid change and a whole lot of stress as changes in technology and the workplace turn their business upside down. (A while back I called it "the end of an Aeron"). The company has been doing a serious amount of research into where the office is going, and what they should be designing and building to furnish it, and have published Phonebooths and Mailboxes to look at the future of the office.

teknion© TEKNION

Phonebooths and Mailboxes is a discussion about new technologies. Consider how quickly the cell phone replaced the pager, how quickly the fax machine was replaced by email. Mobile technology now signals one of the biggest transformations within the modern office.

Teknion sponsored a presentation at IIDEX with design experts from Canada, Britain and the US to look at the questions of the future of work. Where will technology lead us? Have we forgotten who we are designing for?

phoneboothsLloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

Headphones are the new wall

Jo Heintz of Dallas firm Staffelbach notes that less than 50% of workers are now going to traditional offices. She says "workers want the freedom to choose where and how they work." But she notes that when they are in the office, 37% of business time is spent in meetings, and half of the time in meetings is spent exchanging information. There are certainly better ways of doing that than sitting around a table.

zonesLloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

The trick today appears to be to try and design different zones for different functions; the reason you go to the office is to collaborate and the office should promote that. It is not about hiding in the private office and going to the board room for endless meetings anymore; those rooms are both changing and disappearing. Even the old office system walls are disappearing; so many people use headphones now while they work that as Jo said, Headphones are the new wall.

Heidi PainchaudHeidi Painchaud/ Lloyd Alter/Lloyd Alter

ROWE Your Boat Towards the Results Oriented Work Environment

Heidi Painchaud of B+H noted that designers are going to have a lot of trouble keeping up with change; The average lease of an office is 10 years in North America, while the technology is turning over every 18 months. How do you design for that? How do you design for tech that doesn't even exist?

She suggests that employees are using technology in ways that their bosses cannot even think of, so that employers have to change the way they evaluate their workers because they may not even see them. The trend is to ROWE, the Results Oriented Work Environment; people can work wherever and however they want as long as they produce and meet their goals.

anybotAnybot/Promo image

This is a bit of a diversion but worth discussing. Heidi presented an example of a disruptive technology coming down the pipe, the Anybot, which goes beyond just videoconferencing and lets a worker actually move around the office as if they were there, or lets the boss do "management by rolling around", a wonderful update of that seventies term.

I will just do a bit of an aside that I think this is a terrible idea, not dissimilar from the debate about skeuomorphism, defined as a "derivative object that retains ornamental design cues to a structure that was necessary in the original." and being debated right now about Apple's software designs. This is skeuomorphic technology, that will end up like a scene from Sly Stallone's brilliant classic Demolition Man:

I don't think we want to go there.

How are companies addressing increasing mobility today?

John Campbell of Francis Cauffman described the drivers that are pushing mobility:

  • Connectivity
  • Work/life balance
  • Pressure to reduce operating and real estate costs
  • access to global talent
  • Business agility
  • Reduction in carbon footprint.

There are a different modes:

Telework: the work comes to you.
Mobility: you go to where the work is.
Co-working: The "neutral" place to connect, engage and work
Distributed work: geographically dispersed, virtual teams

We no longer come to the office because that's where the technology or the files are. We come for social engagement, cross discipline collaboration, mentoring, improving team spirit, serendipitous discussion, which is "much harder to have over the phone". To respond to this changed use, the office will have mixture of assigned and unassigned, with seating based on work styles; Wide variety of work settings; Wireless connectivity; Natural light: a focus on wellness.


pollLloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

This was new: They did constant polling and questioning of the audience using texting; a good proportion of the crowd would answer each poll. At first I thought it was really hokey, but in fact it worked, it really did involve the audience in the discussion.

All of the speakers were of boomerish ages. (As was much of the audience). There was no presence on the stage of any of the millennial generation that they spent so much time talking about and say they are designing for. When John Campbell said that the office was great for serendipitous conversation which was "much harder to have over the phone", I wondered who uses a phone anymore? If "headphones are the new wall", how much serendipitous conversation actually happens?

In the end I think Heidi Painchaud nailed it when she noted that the technology was changing every 18 months and asked "how do you design for that?" It's hard, and it wasn't clear that anyone really knew. Perhaps Katrina Kostic Samen came closest with her list:

choice: for the occupier
fluidity: in the work and environment
efficiency: more people in less space
social: work is social
agility: nothing lasts forever!

At IIDEX: Will the Office Go the Way of the Phonebooth and Mailbox?
Four top interior designers from around the world look at the future of the office. Hint: It's changing.

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